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Sex Robots


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It’s 2023, where are the sex robots?

‘They will probably never be as huge as everyone thinks’
 

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Sex with robots is ‘about intimacy and technology, computers and psychology’, says Dr Kate Devlin.

Illustration: Victoria Hart/Guardian Design/Getty Images

For at least a decade, researchers have speculated that sex with robots is just around the corner and yet that is yet to materialise

The man leans towards the woman on his couch. “What is your favourite meal?” he asks, his accent French. “Electricity,” she says, with a strong Scottish inflection. “It provides me energy and has a kick to it.”

The slight, bespectacled, increasingly bemused man peppers her with questions as they sit. Her blond hair gleams, her dark-rimmed eyes are placid, her lips a full and glossy pout. “Can I call you Charlotte?” he asks.

“Sure baby, OK,” she says. “From now on my name will be Charlotte. I like it.”

The man is Cyrus North – a French YouTuber with more than 700,000 followers who describes himself as a technology lover and philosopher. He bought “Charlotte” for about €11,000.

Charlotte’s original name was Harmony, and she is a sex robot.

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Photograph: Cyrus North/Youtube

Not to be mistaken for a sex doll, which doesn’t move or speak, sex robots, or sexbots, are android, mechanical devices that use artificial intelligence and are designed for humans to have sexual intercourse with.

Humans (mostly men) have fantasised about sex robot-like beings since before Ovid wrote the tale of the sculptor Pygmalion bringing his creation, Galatea, to life. In more recent times, it is reflected in television series such as Westworld and films including Steven Spielberg’s A.I., Alex Garlands’s Ex Machina and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. And who could forget the fembots in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, with their fully armed bazookas?

Then evolving robotic and artificial intelligence technology supercharged sexbot speculation.

In 2014, Pew research predicted robotic sex partners would become commonplace.

In 2015, speculative fiction doyenne Margaret Atwood published The Heart Goes Last, with a protagonist who built “prostibots”. Her writing was inspired by reality, she said.

“[Humans] desire robots because we can mould them to our taste, and fear them because what they could decide to do themselves,” she said.

In the years since speculation – and moral panic – boomed, what has actually happened in the android sex industry? Where are the sex robots?
Alicia Vikander plays a robot in Ex Machina.

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Alicia Vikander plays a robot in Ex Machina. Photograph: AJ Pics/Alamy

In 2022, Bedbible, a sex toy review site, published a study that claimed the sex robot industry is worth about $200m, and the average price, the company said, is $3,567 per sexbot.

That would mean about 56,000 sex robots are sold per year worldwide among an adult population for around 5 billion.

Many experts describe the sex robot industry as “niche”, with the stigma, the expense and the emergence of other forms of sextech making it unlikely they’ll ever become mainstream.

While the hyperbole of the mid-2010s has died down, the sex robot fantasy lives on. There was a curious piece of math in the Bedbible survey. They also claimed that 17.4% of people say they have either had sex with a robot or currently owned a sex robot.

The conversation sex robots inspire has not gone away either. In November 2022, the seventh International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots was held – virtually, naturally – and showed that academic interest in sextech is surging alongside popular interest.

Dr Kate Devlin, an AI researcher from King’s College London, is one of the world’s top experts in sex robots.

In Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots she wrote that sex with robots is about much more than just sex with robots.

“It’s about intimacy and technology, computers and psychology.

“It’s about history and archaeology, love and biology. It’s about the future, both near and distant: science fiction utopias and dystopias, loneliness and companionship, law and ethics, privacy and community. Most of all, it’s about being human in a world of machines.”

In a 2022 talk, Devlin said that when she started working in the area, she had visions of “this army of wonderful fembots … ready to take over the world”. Instead, though, there are a handful of places making sex dolls with a bit of robotics (she says Harmony, AKA Charlotte, is one of the best despite the “bizarre” Scottish accent).

“I don’t think sex robots are ever going to be a big market,” Devlin says. “I don’t think we have to worry about that.”

Evolutionary biologist and author of Artificial Intimacy: Virtual friends, digital lovers and algorithmic matchmakers, Rob Brooks, says sex robots capture the imagination because they’re “easily relatable”.

“It’s like a person, we can do some ‘person’ things with them,” the University of New South Wales professor says. “But it doesn’t decide it doesn’t like you, it doesn’t have needs.”

North unpacks Charlotte from a box marked “fragile”, head first. Then he tackles the headless body, dressed in a cropped white singlet, flat stomach contrasting with pristine white undies.

He sets her up, pulls the glossy wig over the innards of her skull, turns her on and shows the world their conversation. He’s chosen her eye and skin colour and has an app that gives him personality options.

Her lips move sometimes, sometimes they stop and he wiggles them. They talk, with some glitches. Do you want to have sex, make love?

“Interesting deduction,” she says awkwardly, while conceding she likes doggy style.

One of the big obstacles that sex robot manufacturers continue to grapple with is the “uncanny valley” – the creepiness of an android that very closely resembles a human but is ever so slightly off.

“What is the problem? Is it the glint in the eye? Is it the way they move?” Brooks says.

That can be overcome, he argues. “Anyone who ever says computers can do this and this and this but they’ll never do that, they’re almost immediately proved wrong.”

But Brooks thinks the pure logistics of sex robots will limit their rise. “They’re big, they’re clunky, they’re embarrassing if they’re sitting on the sofa when your friends come over. You need a massive closet, both literally and figuratively, if you’re going to have one.

“The robots are kind of a niche issue. They probably will never get to be as huge as everyone thinks.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2023/jan/14/its-2023-where-are-the-sex-robots-they-will-probably-never-be-as-huge-as-everyone-thinks

https://www.youtube.com/@mllealice6678

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